Why Do You Read Books?
I had a conversation recently with a colleague about technical writing. One of my chemistry professors had told me that I should pursue technical writing, rather than chemistry as a career. My colleague, who was manager in all but name of a chemistry laboratory for the last year, pointed out that it’s a good thing I didn’t take that advice. The best technical writers, he said (and I agreed) have some experience in what they are writing about. It’s not that you can’t be a technical writer and not have done the tests, or run the instruments. It’s that if you have no hands-on in the field, you are only going to be able to have a shallow understanding of what you’re writing about.
But Cedar, you’re thinking, fiction is not the same as technical writing. And boy howdy are you right. I much prefer fiction, or the casual style of these blog articles, to the formulas and conventions of technical papers and reports. I can do them. That doesn’t mean I enjoy them the way I do this. I also enjoy the hands-on of being in the lab conducting tests and assays. So being a Scientist is much more my cuppa tea… and novelist on the side. However, the experience in life I have also seeps into my fiction, and makes it better and deeper, and your audience can tell if you know what you’re talking about, just like in technical writing.
Audience dictates what a successful writer produces to some extent. While it’s liberating and amusing to think that we can write whatever we want, that’s also limiting. The audience of one: ourself, it’s not much of a market. However, if we decide that we’d like to sell our books, and sell lots of them, we need to study the audience until we understand it.
You can do this in several ways. One, talking directly with fans, is somewhat effective, but can be difficult if you are a new or relatively unknown author. Talking with colleagues: other writers and even publishers, can be helpful, but only if they are willing to share (like Toni Weisskopf, who is more than gracious if you catch her with a moment to spare at a con sometime and don’t demand her attention rudely). Being part of a writing group, or following blogs like this one, can be useful to see what is working and what isn’t. For those who want more, or are just starting out, you can hit the review section below books that resemble your own. Keep in mind, however, that not all reviewers are *coff* unbiased and objective in their writing, either. But if you see a theme running through them of ‘I liked this, more of this.’ or ‘I hated that, don’t do that’ it can help you decide that perhaps including tentacle sex in your military science fiction (especially surprise!sex) is not something that a majority of the reading audience for that sub-genre are going to appreciate.
Also, if you want to cross genres, and say, write Romances because they sell so well and you can practically smell the money, you will do best to both research your audience, and also to read the top best sellers at the very minimum. Writing in a genre you do not read is a Very Bad Idea. Don’t do it.
Drilling down into understanding what makes an Audience tick, is understanding why they came to you in the first place, their demographics, and how you can incorporate your newfound knowledge into your writing to make it appeal to a larger audience.
So why do people read books?
I asked on social media, and after six hours, when I began to collect the results of my informal survey, the answers were fascinating. Some were serious, some were snarky. Some were sublime. I’ve included a selection of my favorites under the table. I tabulated the responses according to word usage – it may seem redundant to include enjoyment, entertainment, pleasure, and fun as separate categories, but the connotations of the words people chose interested me, so I separated them out. The other surprise of the answers was how many people are like me: they can’t not read. It’s a compulsion to read anything in print that enters their line of sight.
I posed the survey question in two large groups of readers, and on my personal timeline on Facebook. I tabulated the results by reasons, and some respondents gave more than one reason, I counted by reason, not person.
|Reason for reading books||Number of respondents|
|“Like I have a choice” (compulsion to read, it’s an addiction)||29|
|“Because they’re there”||6|
|To Gain Knowledge, for Education||41|
|“Because I can”||5|
|“Why Do I Breathe?”||5|
|Because I haven’t read them all yet||1|
|Expand/Sharpen my mind||6|
|Because it is a privilege to do so||1|
|Better, or more convenient than TV or movies||2|
|To discover new characters||2|
“Because staring at words and having vivid hallucinations doesn’t show up on a random drug test.” Bob Cruze Jr.
“I feel that it teaches empathy and ability to put yourself in others shoes. I think readers are more compassionate people.” Amy G.
“Because it turns out that I can’t absorb them by osmosis.” Mark W.
“ I want to fill my mind with brilliant ideas, faraway landscapes, unforgettable (and forgettable) characters. I want the theater of my mind to have plays written by someone else than me once in a while. True, I escape into books, but I think that’s a wonderful thing. I get ideas, I stretch my imagination, and I gain knowledge of the world.” Jody Lynn Nye
“Cos I haven’t read them all yet …” Joseph Bear
“I especially like fiction that comes as a series. But it has to be a good series. Like your Pixie For Hire series and Children of the Myth series. I’m getting to the point where I want to read them again. Yes I’m one of those weird people that reads books more than once.” Gail B.
“Plus, it’s magic. Telepathy. The writer encodes his/her thoughts on paper (or in pixels) and passes them to me in that/those form(s), whereupon, they reform in my mind as sensations and narratives.” Mark A.
“I read to expand my mind. I learn new things, and if I come across an unknown concept, I am able to imagine new possibilities, new worlds, new methods of solving various and sundry dilemmas that have baffled mankind for ages. I also lower my blood pressure, decrease my chances of Alzheimer’s, and I support the economy and the authors by buying the books I read.” Alan D B.
“To see and do things that not only could I not do, but that NOBODY could do– it’s like having a really deep, good conversation but without it having to manage all the timing involved in that. Or it’s a good joke when you just can’t even. To sit down by the fire when that really isn’t an option.” Foxfier
“When I was a kid, I was enough of an outcast that I didn’t like where I was, so I read to be other places, to immerse myself in Sonoran deserts, or under the sea, or in space. To not have to be where I was the brunt of everyone’s humor and abuse, to be the hero sailing off to Barsoom. I began to like those other places so well that I began to prefer them to reality. and even when I came into my own I enjoyed revisiting those places that had given me solace, and comfort, and eventually knowledge and confidence” Mike H.
“The internal conversation is often more fascinating than the external.” Kim S.
“I’d say entertainment, but I think it matters why a person is looking for entertainment. I like science fiction because it’s fun to explore new worlds. I like romance because it has happy endings and isn’t challenging, and sometimes a person just needs to relax. There have been many times when I’m stressed enough that all I can deal with my books I’ve already read before what I know what’s going to happen and I can’t miss anything if I don’t pay attention or get interrupted.” Julie P.
“They taste like chicken.” Hopalong Ginsberg
“Because stone tablets are too heavy to carry… What?” Chris T. and Jeff P.
“When I was young, I learned that books were my friends.
They didn’t judge. They didn’t tease or torment. They weren’t cruel.
They were always there for me and always welcomed my company.” Brena B.
“If I have any money I buy books, if any is left I buy food.” – Erasmus
“Cause the pictures are better. Last owned a TV 30 years ago and have never missed it.” Donald M.
“Books last longer than magazines.” Julian Thompson